The province of Florida is just an hour’s from Montevideo, but you are already in what some call Uruguay profundo – “Deep Uruguay”.
In Florida, people live quiet lives. The primary industry is dairy production. The railroads which the British built in the later part of the nineteenth century stopped running in the 1980s and nowadays most people work in agriculture or local government.
Roads are usually so deserted, the few people you pass – many of whom will be gauchos — will wave to you. And it’s super safe. When you stop for lunch you can leave your car windows down and the doors unlocked.
It’s possible to do a day-trip to Florida from Montevideo, however I’d recommend you take a few days to slow right down. Spend a few nights under a sky with zero light pollution. Do slow drives through the charming countryside and meet some of the locals that I’ll introduce you to as you read on.
Just an hour outside of Montevideo, here deepest Uruguay begins.
25 de agosto
Uruguayan independence was declared in Florida on August 25 1825. 25 de agosto (pronounced BAYn-teh SEEn-co DEH ah-GOSS-toe) is a sleepy little town of two thousand souls with colourful houses, many of which are painted with murals.
The extraordinary murals of 25 de agosto
Enchanted by the peace and quiet of the town, French painter, Leo Arti, moved to 25 de agosto. In 2012 she painted a gaucho scene on the front of her atelier. Requests started pouring in from townspeople and businesses and at the time of writing, there are 84 murals in this tiny town. The murals range from realist, to expressionist to the downright kitsch.
Read more about the extraordinary murals of 25 de agosto
Working train station
The train still runs to 25 de agosto from Montevideo. Unfortunately the timetable only has locals in mind. The train leaves for Montevideo early in the morning and returns in the evening. This is inconvenient for travellers as there is currently no accommodation in 25 de agosto other than a camp ground. [Things could be changing as locals have heard about Airbnb. Watch this space]
Independencia is a village of around 400 people founded in 1874. The town was once thriving, however when passenger trains stopped running in the 80s everything changed. A sole passenger train may head out from Montevideo to Florida on festive days such as carnival and Saint Cono. But they no longer stop at Independencia.
Fortunately, Independencia is starting to take pride in its past and looking to attracting visitors in the future. From just a few years ago, every September 13 the town throws a celebration to recognise the role of town elders, and everyone is invited!
Rural school designed by a world-famous engineer
Uruguay has a rich history of supporting education for all. In the 1960s, the government set about improving rural schools together with revolutionary Uruguayan engineer Eladio Dieste. Dieste was world famous at the time for his deliberately modest, ultra-functional brick buildings. Over two hundred rural schools were built, including the one in Independencia.
Read more about Uruguay’s rural schools with their distinctive undulating roofs
Pit stop – Santa Lucia River and Paso El Sordo (Deaf Man’s Pass)
If you need to cool off on your journey, locals and Montevideans come to fish and swim in here in river waters more than 10 feet deep (3-5 metres). During the summer season, a river-side shack sells cold beer. Gabriel gets his stock from local shops to avoid unfair competition.
How to get there: Just before you get to Independencia (at 6.5 km signpost on Ruta 77), turn right at the sign for Paso Severino. Take the next immediate right signposted to “Paso El Sordo” and drive apx half a mile (1 km) to the river which is at the end of the dirt road.
Guru warning: Clean-up is currently the being handled on a volunteer basis by neighbours so to enjoy the Pass at its most attractive, go weekdays and off-season. There is no life guard so please be careful.
Cardal founded in 1900 is the official Milk Capital of Uruguay. Though the town has a small population of just 1,200 the surrounding area produces a third of all the dairy production in Uruguay. Uruguay is the only country in the world to have provided laptops to every single schoolchild in the public education system. Cardal was the town where the One Laptop One Child initiative known as Plan Ceibal was piloted.
The Milk Festival and world’s biggest rice pudding
Every year on the last weekend in October the town celebrates the Fiesta de la leche (Milk Festival). The festival generally lasts for three days. There’s live music, dancing, livestock judging and parades, gaucho and horse-riding events and typical Uruguayan barbeque (asado). On the last day the town makes a gigantic rice pudding using over 250 gallons (1000 litres) of milk. There’s also a best rice pudding competition. Cardal hopes the Tourism Minister will be competing with her Armenian recipe in October 2017.
The Fenocchi Chapel tragedy
In the late nineteenth century four of the eight daughters of the Fenocchi family died in a diphtheria epidemic. For fear of spreading the contagion the grief-stricken parents were forbidden to bury the bodies of the four girls in the local cemetery. So they buried them close to their house, in a shady glade where later they built a chapel in their memory.
Four trees were planted around the chapel, one for each deceased daughter. Only three are left today. However mysteriously, each tree has four branches. Children especially love to visit the chapel and its “enchanted forest”. The chapel is in a tiny microclimate. To get to it you must cross a small wooden bridge over a brook and cut through lush vegetation.
To visit the Capilla Fenocchi, if you speak Spanish contact local historian, Washington del Valle (telephone +598 99 568 790) who has the key for the chapel. You are in for a treat. He is the most fantastic story-teller. I suggest taking him a little gift to say thanks for his time as he does this voluntarily. The chapel is a very short drive outside of the town but the road is not signposted. If you don’t speak Spanish, Washington is still happy to take you to see this magical slice of Cardal’s past.
Where to eat – Pizzeria 2000
Your lunch time stop has to be Pizzeria 2000, the hub of social life in Cardal. It’s a nice little resto-pub serving typical Uruguayan food. Prices are much more reasonable than Montevideo and service amiable. Ironically in the town of the world’s most gigantic rice pudding, rice pud is not on the menu (at least not for now, Washington is working on them 😉 ).
Pizzeria 2000 is opposite the train station. Open all day until the last customer leaves
Home to reggae-rock band Vitrola Sur
Cardal is home to a rock band that got some national TV coverage after winning a major battle of the bands a few years ago. Check out their videos to see some of the Cardal countryside and listen to songs that refer to the end of the railroad. [Thanks to Washington for the tip about Vitrola Sur]
25 de mayo
Severino herb and native fruits cooperative
The women of this coop got together after they were worried about the diet of the children in the village. They realised that the locals needed to get more educated regarding cutting down on salt and sugar and using seasonings and natural sweeteners that would do more good than harm. After receiving a small grant they extended their herb gardens and native fruit orchards and set up a drying tent (secadero in Spanish). You can buy herbs, honey, jams, natural loofahs and native fruit liqueurs depending on the season. You can also join them for harvest in late March and early April.
None of the ladies speak English but they would love to receive visitors from Guru’Guay, especially international ones! Make an appointment via the Severino herbs and native fruits cooperative Facebook page. Or drop them an email at email@example.com giving them an idea of when you are planning to drop in. Viva Google Translate!
25 de mayo housing cooperative
25 de mayo is home to one of the three oldest housing cooperatives in Uruguay. Again in the 60s, a rural cooperative movement (known as MEVIR in Spanish) emerged to eradicate the unhealthy ramshackle shacks many people in the countryside lived in. The design of MEVIR houses was innovative in that they had a distinctive hexagonal design, and permitted the maximum amount of air and sunlight into what were still modest houses. They were also built by the occupants themselves, some of whom still live there.
Florida – capital of Florida province
Florida is the provincial capital and the place where Uruguayan independence was first declared on August 25 1825, a day of big celebrations each year. About half the population of the province, some 33,000 people, live there. Florida has one of the only cathedrals in Uruguay – home to the Virgin of the Thirty-Three, the patron saint of Uruguay. The Thirty-Three Orientals were the liberators of Uruguay.
Close to the Cathedral is the chapel of San Cono. San Cono is thought to bring good fortune and a favourite with lottery enthusiasts. The chapel is filled with quirky testimonies of gratitude to the saint including offerings of bicycles, guitars and even wedding dresses. The annual San Cono procession takes place every June 3 and is perhaps the most popular religious festival in infamously secular Uruguay.
What to eat in Florida – pamplona de ternera
The city of Florida’s culinary claim to fame is its claim to be the capital of the pamplona de ternera – a roll of beef stuffed with cheese, ham, sweet pepper and olives, tied and grilled. Regrettably the pamplona that I ate in the city was not as good as those I’ve enjoyed in Montevideo so the jury is out on where to eat the best pamplona de ternera in Florida. [The Guru is eager for recommendations in the comments below].
Where to stay – Estancia El Ceibo
End your day at El Ceibo, a typical, South American sheep and cattle ranch and guesthouse just twenty minutes drive from Florida. The ranch–building and its glorious wisteria date from 1849 and perfect for outdoor activities (horse-riding, trekking, fishing and more) or relaxing by the private lagoon. El Ceibo is notable because there is perfect peace and quiet yet it is just over one hour from Montevideo.
Perfect for members of your family who prefer their Deepest Uruguay in doses.
Find out more about Estancia El Ceibo
Exploring the Interior – Florida Part II
The Guru heads deeper into Florida, visiting sumptuous estancias, a bell tower in the middle of nowhere and a town with a foot in three provinces
All photos: Guru’Guay
Hearty Guru Thanks to the Department of Tourism of Florida and the Florida Economic Development Agency (ADEF) for the invitation to visit the province of Florida and cover their Ruta de la leche (or Milk Highway). Congratulations for understanding that what makes travel really memorable is the chance to meet real people and see how they live and work, not just visiting typical tourist destinations.
Guru’Guay agradece al Departamento de Turismo de Florida y a la Agencia de Desarrollo Economico de Florida (ADEF) por la invitación a visitar el departamento y recorrer la Ruta de la leche. Les felicita por tener la visión de entender que lo que hace que los viajes sean realmente memorables es la oportunidad de conocer a su gente y ver cómo viven y trabajan, no sólo visitar destinos turísticos típicos. Y gracias a toda la gente maravillosa que tuve la suerte de conocer y que tomaron tanto placer en mostrarme sus pueblos.
ALSO READ: 7 Things you must know about driving in the Uruguayan countryside